Published on 2016/07/27

Transforming the Institution to Treat Students Like Customers

—Co-written with John Davis | Executive Director of Duke Corporate Education, Duke University

 

The EvoLLLution | Transforming the Institution to Treat Students Like Customers
Students consider themselves both customers and learners, bringing with them high expectations for service and outcomes. It’s time for institutions to follow suit.

Today’s students are discerning, price-conscious and outcomes-oriented. They have higher expectations when it comes to service and quality than ever before. What’s more, they have almost complete freedom of choice between the different colleges and universities in the market. However, many higher education leaders are still loathe to think of students as customers. In this interview, Mark Farrell and John Davis dive into the notion of the student as a customer and share their thoughts on why it’s so important for postsecondary leaders to get past this particular hang-up.

 The EvoLLLution (Evo): Do today’s students think and behave more like customers than traditional students?

Mark Farrell (MF): Yes, today’s students think and behave more like customers than traditional students. Universities compete with each other for students. They employ sophisticated marketing techniques to encourage students to study at their respective institutions, making promises of “transformational experiences” and “future proofing career preparation.”  They then charge students large sums of money in exchange for their degrees and diplomas. It is little wonder that today’s students are now behaving more like consumers than students of years gone by.

John Davis (JD): There is also a trend away from learning for the betterment of oneself and learning’s sake, and toward short-term gratification, including a focus on coursework that will lead to “a good job,” which has further accelerated the trend toward students as customers.

Evo: Why is it so important for colleges and universities to adapt to this trend?

MF: To survive, universities need the revenue that students bring. It’s as simple as that. Those universities that can’t generate sufficient revenue will be unable to compete and will end up either closing down or merging.

JD: In addition, non-elite universities will have to spend more effort on redefining and refining their distinctive point of view. After all, it is getting increasingly hard for these institutions to compete at the same level, with the same breadth of expertise, as their better known and better funded elite counterparts.

Evo: To be clear, does treating students as customers turn a college or university into a degree mill?

MF: Absolutely not! What it does mean is that universities must deliver on the promises they sold to students. Any college or university that starts to behave like a degree mill will soon find its reputation in tatters and will end up with no students.

JD: Treating students as customers does not change the fundamental mission of a reputable university in providing the best possible education. Educational standards should not be compromised, nor are we advocating as much. It simply means that institutions must determine an updated, and more focused, strategic expertise and design and deliver content and insights in a way that captures the imagination of today’s generation of students.

Evo: What are some of the consequences institutions might face should they decide not to treat their students as customers?

MF: Student satisfaction with their educational experience will become increasingly important. Institutions with low satisfaction will find it hard to compete with institutions that are able to deliver satisfaction. It is important that we do not confuse satisfaction with easy marking, or degree mills. Satisfaction will be a function of how well universities deliver on their promises, the quality of their programs, and the ability of graduates to secure appropriate, college graduate level jobs.

JD: In addition, alumni networks will grow in importance for universities seeking to sustain viability into the future for the simple reason that a deeper network of supporters is more likely to serve as advocates and ambassadors for the institution, helping reinforce its future reputation.

Evo: How can institutions change to ensure they treat their students like valued customers?

JD: There are a few critical things colleges and universities need to do to ensure they’re treating students like valued customers. They must:

  • Identify what will make them more distinctive and compelling;
  • Invest in developing learning approaches that engage students far more directly and richly than institutions historically have done (including flipped classrooms, sophisticated digital platforms, immersive experiential learning, hands-on projects);
  • Create deeper and lasting connections with students while in school and as alumni through active communities and local alumni chapters that informally extend the educational reach of the university;
  • Provide balanced support and recognition for faculty so that teaching becomes far more rewarding and respected, just as research has done for decades; and
  • Create active learning communities comprised of faculty, students, alumni and professional networks to foster a far richer set of connections that drive and reinforce a university’s higher educational purpose.
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Key Takeaways

  • Colleges and universities are competing for students and are reliant on the revenues those students generate; it’s critical to treat them with the respect that comes with “customer” status.
  • Treating students like customers does not equate to a diminishing academic product—it simply means institutions need to follow through on the promises they sold to incoming students.
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